Motivation, Anyone?

For: The Writers’ Fair.

Now, I might be making a fundamental mistake, here, right at the beginning, by assuming that we want an answer to this question ‘Why Write? ’ And I'm thinking this way because, at the Melbourne Writers' Conference not long ago, the question was ‘Why I Write What I Write,’ and that wasn't any easier, either, so when it was all over, and we were all spilling out from the Athenaeum Theatre into the glary street ready for home, Frank Moorhouse was leaning up against a billboard, finishing his notes of that session for the National Times, and grinning because he thought we all lied about why we write, that it wasn't the lies which were interesting, but that we lied so as not to interfere with the Writer's Mystique, and he was going to blow the whistle on all of us.

I've no quarrel with that, although I was grateful for the kindly enough way he wrote it in the end, but we're facing the same manner of problem here, and it's compounded, as it seems to me, by this consideration: we may not know why we write anything, and we may be incapable of finding out. It's a comfort that this is not a Conference, but a Fair, and that idea, a manner of Fair-ground of ideas revolving on carousels and pinned up on dartboards, may make the whole thing somehow manageable, so what I'm doing in the tent I've set up here, is a display of some of the reasons we give for writing, and if you can circle any of them with a hoop, they're yours to do whatever you like with.

It's only the very well-known writers whose reasons for anything survive, which may explain why some of them publish absolutely everything they write, but here's a display of a few.

Mordecai Richler says he writes for the same reason a baby cries, so that someone will pay him some attention. I found that reason distasteful enough to take Richler's books down from my shelves. Morris Lurie says it's because, in a story, he can be anything he wants, at least this is what he tells children at the schools he visits, and that is an activity he takes very seriously, so we can assume that this is as close to the truth as he can come at present.

Joan Didion says we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and Nabokov that we write stories because we like stories, which I think is another of his charming ways to remain invisible.

But something very like it would have affected old A.J. Liebling, although I don't think he ever said so, but at the New Yorker he would burst from his office, this huge man in a great Jewish overcoat which he wore however hot the summer, and read the new golden paragraph just ripped from the typewriter to some astounded passer-by in the corridor.

Several writers, using other words, like to bring order out of chaos, although this doesn't explain people like Barry Dickins, Jack Hibberd, and SJ Perelman, who like doing precisely the opposite. But you can't leave out of a group like this, John Cheever, and his "hope to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream."

Some years ago, I made the mistake of explaining to a friend why I so much liked reading stories and novels, and his first reaction was of shock, that anyone would read fiction to better understand how the world worked. Now, he must have changed his mind by now, for that friend was John Timlin, then playwright and story writer, who now manages and writes for Max Gillies, whose marvellous fictional characters show precisely how the world works.

Poet Fay Zwicky, in her wonderful collection of essays called The Lyre in the Pawnshop comes closer to the technical, at any rate with poetry, by liking "the motive of the humanly possible use of words," and their extension, so I wouldn't like to exclude the technical from a consideration of motives because what occurs to me now is listening to Professor Macfarlane Burnett talking about his motives when he isolated the Murray Valley Encephalitis virus explaining he was interested at first in some unusual molecular combinations - or in his work on body-cells' recognition of self and nonself on which modern immunology is based - that he was fascinated by the question: Why does the stomach not digest itself?

I want to bring Mailer in here - I know Mailer isn't well thought of, currently, and I didn't think well of him either until the Executioner's Song and A fire On the Moon - but he deals, in A Fire on the Moon, which is about the first moonshot rocket, with an understanding of dreams, and I've an idea that there's some sort of parallel here with why we read, and why we write. He extends Freud's thesis - that dreams are a mechanism of wish fulfilment - by suggesting that they do something more, that they take, they navigate the dreamer to, and through, places so difficult for the mind that awake it can't make it. And further, that if the mind were to go there awake, it mightn't come out again unscathed.

It gave dignity to the dream and to the dreamer. The dreamer was no longer consoling himself. Rather, he was exploring the depths of his own ability to perceive crisis and react to it; he was exploring ultimate modes of existence in sex and in violence, in catastrophe and in death. So the real substance of a dream was a submersion into dread. One tested the ability of the psyche to bear anxiety as one submerged into deeper and deeper plumbings of the unknowable until one reached a point where the adventurer in oneself could descend no longer, panic was present – one was exploded out of the dream. But a dangerous shoal had at least been located.

Now, I'd like to suggest this has some relevance for all of us as writers, and as readers. I think good writing, like good dreaming, gives dignity to the story and to the teller and to the reader, and acts like a practise-run for other times which, otherwise, we wouldn't understand and handle nearly so well.

And here's another link, it seems to me, between writing and reading, and dreams and day-dreams. It has to do with, and yes, I’m coming back to Fairs. I have a memory, and I'd be surprised if all of us here didn't share it in one form or another, of wandering as children at a carnival, or a Mardi Gras, dumbstruck, and a parent, or some irritated custodian older than we are, tugs at us, roughly, saying, "Why are you always dreaming?"